Five Came Back by Mark Harris

The story of five Hollywood directors who went to war in the forties and made some unforgettable propaganda films is a story that needed telling, and in Mark Harris it has found a knowledgeable, thorough and research-oriented author.  Yet his accounts of Wyler, Stevens, Capra, Huston and Ford in action  —  both military and dramatic  —  reads like a novel.  We enter all the theaters of war, with Ford in the Pacific, Wyler in Africa and Italy and in the Memphis Belle, Huston in the  Aleutians and at San Pietro, Stevens photographing the liberation of concentration camps (with film that would become evidence at Nuremberg), and Capra in Washington organizing and superintending it all.

William Wyler

Stevens in postwar work, on the set with his his stars

If Huston or Ford is a personal hero, however, and you are unfamiliar with previous books about them, you might wish to steer clear of this study  —  very unattractive portraits (anti-Semitic portraits) of two unattractive personalities.  Storied filmmakers of staggering talent  —  but unattractive personalities.

And Harris’ treatment of the fabled Frank Capra is in a class by itself.  I had believed that no writer could savage Capra to the extent that Capra savages himself in the final pages of his own book The Name Above the Title, but Harris manages to surpass him.  It is clear early in the book that Harris likes neither Frank Capra nor his films.  He is determined to see Capra as a crypto-Fascist; and any quality or craft in his work goes largely unmentioned.

He writes with barely disguised delight of the critical and box office failure of It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra’s first postwar film, at the time of its original release.  His ends his account of Capra with that and not a word about the rediscovery of It’s a Wonderful Life on television, not a word about its present day popularity and longevity as one of America’s best loved films.

Frank Capra

But this is a superbly written book, filled with information.  It includes extensive notes, background on  sources, a full bibliography and some fine photographs.

I learned something new on every page.  I didn’t know that Eric Knight participated in this American wartime effort.  I didn’t know that Joris Ivens did.  Or. Dr. Seuss.

Five Came Back by Mark Harris.  Penguin, 2015.

NEXT Friday POST October 13

Until then,
See you at the movies,


All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
screenplay George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Dell Andrews
based on the novel by Eric Maria Remarque

Everyone remembers the last few feet of film in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front.  It reprises an earlier sequence when the soldiers we know march off, away from the camera.  Each, in his turn, looks back over his shoulder at us.  At the end we have seen most of them die, and we feel guilty, even about the less likable ones.

Watching the film again, the viewer finds the earlier sequence already heartbreaking.  We remember each of these young men, the lovable and the unlikable; and we know that almost all of them will die.

The opening sequence in the hometown of these German soldiers is masterful.  The sight of a most theatrical arch (part of the town plaz) is balanced by the filmic introduction of the characters and a graphic exposition.  The National Board of Review said at the time of the original release:  “A magnificent cinematic equivalent of the book…to Mr. Milestone goes the credit of effecting the similitude in united and dynamic picture terms.  The sound and image mediums blend as one, as a form of artistic expression that only the motion [picture] screen can give.”

Indeed credit must go as well to the writers who have done one of the screen’s most memorable jobs of adaptation  —  a magnificent achievement in adaptation.  The first half of Remarque’s novel is largely impressionistic and not particularly linear.  With flashbacks and visualizations of description, through selection and combining, the adapters created a continuous story suitable for its era’s audience while retaining an overwhelming sense of the war in which  —  and through which  —  all that we see occurs.

Milestone’s vigorous camera (photography by Arthur Edeson, editing by Milton Carruth and Edgar Adams) moves as few cameras in Hollywood were moving in 1930.  It captures the bombardment, the rattling machine guns, the rats, the rain that always drenches war, and the mud.  The number of the dead.  And the body parts.  The track channels the noise and noises of war.

Kimmerich’s Boots.  The dying Kimmerich’s good boots make a motif on film as on the page.  Müller lusts after them, and he will eventually pass them on.  Our Everyman Paul Baümer is present for Kimmmerich’s death and, leaving the hospital afterwards, launches joyously into a glad-to-be-alive run.  In what today appears a lapse, Paul, back in his barracks, delivers a monologue to one of his fellows explaining how he felt, telling us what we have already seen and know.  Was this verbalizing in the original silent footage (with extended titles) shot when All Quiet was planned as a silent film?  These thoughts he shares ARE in the novel and, as expressed in the film, let us know succinctly that he thought about sex, among other things.  This is psychologically sound, and how else convey it?  The clumsiness of it may be in part the fault of the acting.

The Girl on the Poster.  The continuing and forceful visual style of All Quiet is evident in the café scene where the soldiers have gathered to get drunk and look for women.  Our man Paul Baümer and buddy Albert Kropp sit at a table behind which is a poster featuring a soldier with his girl.  Kropp tears the soldier from the picture, leaving just the girl available for their fantasy intentions.  The action will be repeated later in the hospital where Kropp tears the leg he has lost from an earlier photo of himself before his wounding.  Actually neither Milestone nor the screen writers can be credited with the eloquent mutilation of the poster.  The action is Remarque’s, in his novel.  The later incident in the hospital is an inventive addition of the film.

A remarkable shot that everyone who has seen All Quiet remembers is that of grenade smoke clearing and revealing a pair of hands  —  only a pair of hands  — clinging to barbed wire.  This too is precisely described by Remarque in his remarkable book.

The Leaders in the Arena.  Three conversational bits in three different moments in the novel are gathered and combined by the screenwriters into the scene in the film in which the soldiers wonder why they are killing Frenchmen they have never met and can have nothing against.  This grows into one of All Quiet‘s memorable set pieces as the soldiers, talking together, decide that in future, national leaders angry with each other should fight out their disagreement personally face to face before an arena audience and let the better nation win.  In all my viewings of All Quiet, I have never sat with an audience that did not applaud this proposal.

The French Girls.  The scene with the French girls pleased its original pre-Code audience and surprised the late 40s-audience upon the film’s re-release.  Its eroticism seems mild enough today  —  nay, innocent.  Paul and two chums swim naked (this is 1930; we see the men only from the waist up) across a narrow river and approach the farm house where they are expected, bearing their clothes in front of them, much to the delight of the three French girls watching them from within.  After food and wine, the camera reveals the dining table in an empty room with scattered clothes, then settles on the open door of one room from which we hear Paul’s voice.  He speaks to the French girl of what this night will mean to him, an isolated night, away from war and death.

Why does the world love Paul Baümer?  Why did Americans love this German soldier such a short time after so devastating a war?  Lew Ayers’ stylized acting is discomfiting at times.  Yet we always like him and are always pulling for him.  We suffer with him when on his brief leave home he is alone and isolated as his acquaintances and even his family cannot grasp the horrors he knows and make their ignorant assumptions about his experiences.  He has lived only twenty years and is older than all of them.

This is not an actors’ film; and the theme and content, the photography and editing and the sounds of war on the track defeat the thespian shortcomings.  Remarque’s creation  —  Paul and his world  —  win, and win us.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Actor note:  In his supporting role as Kat, Second Company’s sergeant, Louis Wolheim creates a warm and enduring character.  This viewing of All Quiet on the Western Front appears to invalidate the smart-aleck evaluation of Wolheim in The Racket on Rick’s Flicks for 8/7/15.

Until then,
See you at the movies,



Razor-tongued Judith Crist, of national critical reputation at the time of the release of The Beguiled in 1976, wrote:  “A must for sadists and women-haters.”  Passing over whether that is an apt description of the earlier film with Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, I am curious about how many of my readers would describe Sofia Coppola’s current version in the same way.

Under the firm yet delicate hand of Coppola, this Beguiled, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan  is a mood piece.  Pace and rhythm, atmosphere and setting, are  beautifully sustained and controlled.  If Nicole Kidman’s off-set comments are accurate  —  that Coppola captains a relaxed ship  —  the final edited result here is an impressive achievement.  (I remain confused about one aspect of the production design and/or the photography.  The backgrounds of the external shots invariably resemble still photographs  —  not process shots but stills.  They are consistent and fit the mood.  Was their intention beyond consistency and fitness?  I would enjoy hearing from readers about this also.)

The story is set in the Confederacy during the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school  —    currently two instructors (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and four students.  They rescue and nurse back to health a wounded Union soldier, and the male presence among them surfaces repressions, rivalries and jealousies.  SPOILER ALERT:  They heal the captain’s wounded leg, but Miss Martha (Kidman with stalwart nursing skills) will eventually amputate it. Captain McBurney (Farrell)  —  though pathological in his fury  — is more fortunate than he realizes because this is a substitute Freudian amputation.

Elle Fanning is uncomfortably good as the most nubile of the students.  Dunst is pitch perfect in her special loneliness; Farrell is perfectly cast and always excellent; and Kidman is at her best in one of her most subtle performances.

A.O. Scoot in the New York Times describes The Beguiled as a comedy.  This is debatable, even in the limited sense in which he apparently intended.  But his description of the look of the film and of Coppola’s intent and achievement are both admirable:  “Mist and cannon smoke from a distant battlefield hang amid the Spanish moss.  The atmosphere is too genteel to be gothic, but it is haunted nonetheless, by intimations of disorder, lust and violence.”  And Sofia Coppola’s film “is less a hothouse flower than a bonsai garden,a work of cool, exquisite artifice that evokes wildness on a small, controlled scale.”  (New York Times, 6/23/17.)

The Beguiled                     The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola                       Don Siegel
2017                                      1976


Until then,
See you at the movies,



Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (courtesy Verduno)

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard in his prime (courtesy Verduno)

Howard in his prime (courtesy Di Verduno)

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday (courtesy Di Verduno)

During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations.  His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen.  The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind  —  a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt.  As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are,  Pygmalion is Howard’s picture  —  as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.

Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds.  This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.

But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face.  Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal.  As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.

And speaking of its vintage:  Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind.  In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.

In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part.  He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is  —  and solid actor and shining star.

Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard

Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog.  If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.



Until then,
See you at the movies,


Laurence Malkin
an original screenplay by Malkin and Chad Thumann

While en route from his native Netherlands to establish a food program for undernourished children in Morocco, Martijn and his hired British guide are kidnapped and held hostage by Arab terrorists who do not accept his food program story.  Convinced that he is a CIA agent, they torture him in an attempt to make him give up the names of his accomplices.

Ryan Phillippe is Martijn

Ryan Phillippe is Martijn

As long as we stay in the one room where Martijn (Ryan Phillippe) is a hostage and he and his captor fight a duel of wills, Five Fingers is riveting.  Flashbacks to the character’s earlier life, though brief and well done, dilute the tension.  Not fatally, though.  Director, editor and actor have us taut again in moments.

Time-lapse cuts within the hostage scene occasionally open with Phillippe looking less stressed than he should.  Make-up (or lack of it) seems the principal problem though actor and director share some fault.  This is a quibble on a film of vigorous suspense and a performance of mature quality.  Everyone in the cast, including Laurence Fishburne, is very good.  But Phillippe, Hollywood’s most underrated actor, is outstanding.

See Rick’s Flicks of 8/23/13 for Phillippe in Straight A’s.

Until then,
See you at the movies,




Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era     Kenji Mizoguchi     1941, 1942

Though fascinated and gripped by every moment of this film, I found myself wondering, afterwards, if its length is pretentious.  Events are recounted and explanations of them given two and three times.  A scene from Part One (released originally as a separate film) suddenly appears in Part Two, jolting me into realizing that I had been viewing a flashback.

The Forty-seven Ronin of Mizoguchi

The Forty-seven Ronin of Mizoguchi

I do always view Japanese cinema with skepticism  —  skepticism of myself.  Despite years of enjoying films from Japan, I am solidly aware of my naïveté as regards Far East culture.  The departure of Oishi’s wife and children in Part One is stately and time-consuming and moving but, to my western eyes, without explanation of the wife’s motivation, without showing or addressing her change of mind.  We had last seen and heard her swearing never to leave her husband.  Is what I am looking for in the scene obvious to the Japanese viewer  —  or to those more knowledgeable of Japanese mores and history?  Like, say, David Bax.  READ HIS BLOG Battleship Pretension of 8/27/15  (www.battleshippretension.com). With perspicacity and precision and brevity that I cannot match, he writes of The Forty-Seven Ronin, the intent of much Japanese cinema and the distinction between our two cultures.


Until then,
See you at the movies,




HUNGER          Steve McQueen          2008

The first part of Hunger presents Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) entering Maze prison in Northern Ireland.  As we watch Davey being thrust into the routine of incarceration, we learn about the nakedness that IRA prisoners opt for, their policy of not washing themselves combined with smearing their feces on the walls of their cells and pouring their urine over the floors.

Michael Fassbender in Hunger

Michael Fassbender in Hunger

This is the world Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) enters after the first half-hour of the film.  The charisma that is Fassbender’s becomes the charisma of the historical Sands, a leader among men whom he will lead, first,to riot.

SPOILER ALERT:  The second part of Hunger is a single take  —  something more than twenty minutes  —  a conversation between Bobby Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) who tries to talk him out of the planned hunger strike into which he next plans to lead the other prisoners, a strike in which he and eight others will die.

In the third part of Hunger we watch Sands sicken and die before his mother’s eyes and ours.  As he dies his psyche performs what time immemorial has told us all psyches do  —  pass their lives before their own eyes.  Sands prefers his boyhood during which he seems early to have embraced St. Paul’s exhortation to run a good race to the end.

As prison guard Raymond Lohan, Stuart Graham is outstanding.  Fassbender is wondrous.

FISH TANK          Andrea Arnold (writer & director)          2009

This is a coming-of-age tale of  frankly unlikable fifteen-year-old Mia.  At times she overhears, then spies on her mother and the mother’s boyfriend Conor having quite creative sex.  In her growing sexual consciousness, Mia (Katie Jarvis) becomes fascinated by Conor while until now her passion has been dance.  Why dance?  An escape from her dismal, disordered world?

And why is there no back story?  What is the matter with Mia’s slatternly mother?  What IS her story?  SPOILER ALERT:  What is the matter with the unfaithful Conor.  We eventually learn, along with Mia, that he has a wife and child.  Would Arnold think I’m seeking clichés in wanting back stories?

Creative Commons photo of Fassbender

Creative Commons photo of Fassbender

This is an ugly narrative set in an ugly council estate in Essex.  While Katie Jarvis is arresting as Mia, what would Fish Tank have been without Fassbender’s charismatic sexuality as Conor?  This puts both the film’s females, mother and daughter, in the position of defining themselves by the man in their lives; in this instance, the same man.  Is this really what Arnold wants?  Or does it work against her theme?  Or is sex her theme?

NEXT Friday POST January 13

Until then,
See you at the movies,